Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Salon - Southwest Crime Ink

An appearance of mystery writers is perfect for Sunday Salon.

Three of the members of the Southwest Crime Ink writing group, Susan Cummins Miller, J.M. Hayes, and Elizabeth Gunn came up from Tucson as part of the Authors @ The Teague series. Gunn said they all write crime fiction, and they banded together for the same reason wolves do, to hunt in a pack. They all write mysteries, although their books are all very different.

Gunn writes straight procedures, and she researches relentlessly. Mike Hayes writes books that are a farces with marginal realism. His books are set in the Kansas flatlands. Susan Cummins Miller writes beautifully detailed geological mysteries. They all belong to the same critique group. Gunn said it's easier to go on a date like this as a group. She also said Margaret Falk, who writes as J. Carson Black, couldn't be there. She said Falk drops in and out of the group as she can stand it.

To some extent, Elizabeth Gunn acted as the moderator of the group, introducing them and their books. Her first five Jake Hines books were published by Walker; Tor did the sixth. Severn House, a British publisher, picked up the seventh, McCafferty's Nine because they were interested in her Tucson book. However, before Cool in Tucson could come out,
McCafferty's Nine did so well, they offered her a contract for one more book in each series.

J.M. Hayes (Mike) said Walker & Co. was also his publisher for his first book, The Grey Pilgrim. However, when they dropped his editor, and then their line of suspense/thrillers, he reinvented himself. He started a series set in the Kansas flatlands, where he was from. His books are also police procedurals, beginning with Mad Dog & Englishman. The difference is, it's a poor, rural area, and the sheriff is always understaffed. Hayes' books all take place in just 24 hours. His small town sheriff is a Jimmy Stewart type of nice guy, doing his best. His brother is the village oddball, a born again Cheyenne. They are Cheyenne, but his brother, Mad Dog, wants to be a Cheyenne shaman.

Susan Cummins Miller says anthropology comes into Mike's books, and he has a degree in anthropology. She also had degrees in history and anthropology before going into geology. She uses her geological background in her books. The books are set in different settings, so she can include the geology and history. In her books, geology is a character. Her geologist is younger than her, and she's brilliant. But Susan lived in many of the places in her books. She believes conflict derives from place, and there are different types of conflict, depending on the place.

Miller's character Frankie McFarlane, is a field geologist, and teaches at a fictional college in Tuscon. Gunn pointed out that Miller avoids the Cabot Cove syndrome (killing off of too many characters in a town) by moving Frankie around.

Gunn said she does ride-arounds with the police. The last time she did one, on the east side of Tucson, she came away drained. She spent a little time talking about the police, saying she didn't know how they can do what they do. We ask a great deal of street patrolmen, and then her characters are now homicide detectives. It's hard to make the transition back to normal life after a work day. Elizabeth Gunn's nephew was the deputy chief of police in Rochester, Minnesota, so he was the first person to help her with the Jake Hines series. She said he was proud that he never had to use his gun to shoot anyone, but he was lucky. It's a paradigm that police only draw their gun if they must, but, if they must, they have to be prepared to shoot to kill. She said her Tucson cops live in a rougher, grittier setting than her Minnesota cops. Cops have to try to have successful lives as human beings.

Mike said he's an observer. He never saw anyone murdered, or even die, other than the victim of a hit-and-run accident. But, he did take a course offered by the coroner's office, "Medical Legal Death Investigation." It was grim. It showed the variety of methods of suicide. There were pictures of the wounds from various calibers of guns. It was bizarre, terrible stuff. But, he tries to show in his books that life is also full of absurdities, humor that borders on farce. He said there are grim, difficult things in life, but also kindness.

It's difficult to have an amateur sleuth in a series and have them involved in different crimes, according to Miller. That's why she moves Frankie from place to place. Frankie McFarlane is from a large, extended family. Miller's theory is that we're all just one degree removed from violent crime. About the time that Miller wrote Quarry, a mystery involving Frankie's academic world, one of Miller's mentors, a signer of her dissertation, was brutally murdered in Denver. He was a paleontologist, murdered for his collections in a drug-related crime. It was life imitating her book. There are echoes of real life in books. Her first cousin was shot and killed by her father-in-law, and then he killed himself. Even amateur sleuths are aware of the closeness to violent crime. It's less of a stretch today to write about amateur sleuths than it used to be.

Gunn agreed, saying their are mysteries in our own families. People disappear. Mysteries are structured so there are answers to violent crimes. However, there's often a lack of resolution in real life. People get great satisfaction from mysteries because they get solutions and answers. That's satisfying.

Hayes said he went to Wichita State, and later found out he was there at the same time as the BTK Killer. At the time, there was something grimly fascinating about the crimes because they were so troubling. When he was arrested, he proved to be the perfect example of evil, but so shallow and uninteresting. He tries to make his endings make more sense.

Gunn said it's challenging to use sleight-of-hand to hide facts in mysteries. In real life, you'd never get the answers to some crimes. She said she loves starting mysteries, but not resolving them.

Sometimes, the characters don't cooperate, according to Miller. In Quarry, she had a character that just wouldn't work the way she wanted her to.

Then, Miller want back to the topic of crimes and resolution. When Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini was at The Poisoned Pen, Susan asked Muller if her book, Vanishing Point was based on the disappearance of a woman named Nancy in northern California. Muller said yes, but that disappearance was unsolved. Muller set the disappearance twenty-two years earlier, and resolved it. Nancy was the sister of Susan Cummins Miller's brother-in-law. No one likes unsolved murders.

She went on to say she was living in Riverside, California at the time of the Zodiac Killer. She and her friends were haunted by those killings. Why were they not assaulted? Those cases are unsolved.

Elizabeth Gunn said the only time she used a real situation was in the Jake Hines mystery, Five Card Stud. She read a newspaper story about an event that happened in Tucson, when the body of a truck driver was found in one place, his cab in another, and the trailer in a third place. It was never resolved. However, she used that in Five Card Stud. Mystery writers start books with, what if.

Miller was asked about the title of Hoodoo. It's a form of rock in layers. And, it can be different types of rock, volcanic, sedimentary or metamorphic. But, it's layered rock.

Gunn mentioned that secondary characters sometimes get away from their authors. They develop into someone that you can't control. For instance, she mentioned the hybrid wolf/dog in Hayes' books. People wait to see what the dog will do next. She's almost mystical. Mike said she's the shaman's familiar, a spirit animal, a mystical dog. He said secondary characters can light up the story.

In Gunn's Cool in Tucson, the main character has a ten-year-old niece who needed help. But, she's a bright, tough girl who pays back as good as she gets. She's an important secondary character.

Miller commented that there are strong family elements in all their books, even when they're odd families. In Detachment Fault, Frankie gets a job in Tucson, setting up the curriculum. She's been gone for ten years, even though she visited, and now she's come home. She's picking up family relationships in her close family. The McFarlane name is from a Scottish clan. The murders in this book involve a sibling. Family is very strong in this book. It shows that part of Frankie's life.

Gunn said family helps the author round out the main characters. There's an absence of family for Jake Hines because he was an orphan, but he put together a family. Miller said we've all done it because we've all scattered. It's how Americans make families. We have lives we make up as we move on.

Mike's characters stay in Kansas, and have the relationship of brothers. He had no intention of making Mad Dog & Englishman until Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Bookstore told him to.

It was a pleasure to host Southwest Crime Ink, Susan Cummins Miller, J.M. Hayes, and Elizabeth Gunn for Authors @ The Teague.

Elizabeth Gunn's website is

J.M. Hayes' website is

Susan Cummins Miller's website is


Jen said...

Thanks Lesa! This would have been a wonderful event to attend!!

Lesa said...

They were very interesting, Jen. It was a good event.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of the Miller books. Is she published in the UK, do you know?

Lesa said...

I'm afraid I don't know if Susan Miller is published in the U.K. Hopefully, she'll drop by in the next door or so, and can answer that question. Sorry.

Literary Feline said...

How exciting! I am not familiar with any of these authors, but I see that I should be.

Lesa said...

The only one of the authors I had read was Elizabeth Gunn, so it was nice to meet the others as well.

HP toner said...

Wow! That was quite the story telling! Im quite amazed at all the things you've done! No wonder your soo happy! Well I hope you had your fun and excitement. In the mean while, as winters kicking in right now, we might be expecting some change! A change in weather hopefully to the better, it either has to rain or not! Mother nature is playing games with us :}
-Much LoVe

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Saving this to my reading list (you gotta love the new Safari feature on iOS 5!). Great post.... P.S. Happy Friday, everyone :)